The African National Congress (ANC) is the party of South Africa’s national liberation movement. It has governed since the end of apartheid.
The South African Communist Party (SACP) is part of the ANC’s government. It has many elected MPs and holds a number of cabinet seats.
And the trade union federation Cosatu is part of a historic alliance with the SACP and ANC.
But the strikes are exposing the faultlines in this relationship.
Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, expressed this in his speech to strikers last week when he said, “The alliance is again dysfunctional.”
He added, “We will refuse to campaign or support candidates known to be thieves or lazy just because they succeed in manipulating the ANC internal processes.”
Cosatu and the left backed Jacob Zuma for president at the ANC national conference in 2008—ousting sitting president Thabo Mbeki.
Mbeki’s slavish commitment to neoliberalism drove the left to act. But many now think Zuma is continuing on Mbeki’s path.
Thobile Ntola, president of the education union Sadtu—a Cosatu affiliate—took the argument a step further when she addressed strikers. “When we changed the leadership we expected it to change policy,” she said. “If they are not going to change policy, they must also be changed.”
The SACP, far from fighting the workers’ corner, has tried to straddle the emerging tensions—claiming to support strikers on the one hand, while also calling for an end to strikes through negotiations on the other.
So far, Vavi has refused to allow his allies to temper his tone.
Describing the strike last weekend as “workers making political statements”, Vavi said, “Two years after Zuma came in, we have nothing to celebrate. We lost more than 1.1 million jobs. As a result 5.5 million South Africans have been pushed into poverty.”
The unions may win their demands and the alliance may hold—but without Zuma at the head of it. The strikes have exposed a vacuum on the left in South African politics—and so far no new forces have emerged to fill it.